Pioneering space scientist Alexander Dessler, who taught at Rice University for 30 years immediately after founding the initial university division committed to the study of space science at the height of the U.S.-Soviet space race, died April 9 at age 94 in Bryan, Texas.
Alexander Dessler at Rice in 1980. “The image tells a lot,” Dessler mentioned in 2015. “You can see 1 of the earliest HP scientific calculators on the desk (my lately retired, beloved slide rule, which had served me faithfully for 35 years, is most likely standing by in my desk drawer). The image behind me was taken by Tom Gold of Cornell and is 1 of the most dramatic images ever of an Apollo launch. The initial Space Shuttle had not however been launched.” (Photo by Geoffrey Winningham/Courtesy of the Woodson Study Center at Rice University’s Fondren Library)
Dessler produced lasting contributions to the study of the magnetic fields of the sun, Earth and other planets, and to the study of the “solar wind” of charged particles that stream from the sun and dominate a area of space far beyond the orbit of Pluto. He introduced the notion of this sun-dominated area of space and coined its name, “heliosphere.”
Colleagues and former students who knew Dessler at Rice say his scientific prowess was matched by his wit, generosity and care for other individuals.
“Three important words: leader, mentor and pal,” mentioned Tom Hill ’67, professor emeritus and analysis professor of physics and astronomy, who nominated Dessler for the Arctowski Medal in 2015 and penned a detailed obituary covering Dessler’s achievements. “He is broadly recognized as a founding father of space physics, at Rice, in the United States and worldwide.”
Information from Voyager 1, which crossed the outer boundary of the heliosphere in 2012 to turn out to be the initial interplanetary spacecraft, confirmed lots of predictions Dessler had produced decades earlier about the heliosphere. The National Academy of Sciences’s awarded him the Arctowski Medal in honor of these contributions and other individuals.
“I loved spending time with him,” mentioned Melissa Kean ’96, Rice’s former centennial historian. “He was, No. 1, scrupulously truthful. He was funny as hell. Tongue in cheek a lot of instances, but also really humane. He was gracious. He was engaging. He was fearless as a researcher and as an administrator. And he was a excellent pal.”
Dessler earned his bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of Technologies in 1952 and a doctorate in physics from Duke University in 1956. He had eight years encounter functioning as a space scientist at Lockheed in Palo Alto, California, when he joined Rice. His humor and honesty are each and every on show in an autobiographical account of the department’s founding that Dessler published in May possibly 2022 in the American Geophysical Union journal Perspectives of Earth and Space Scientists.
Alexander Dessler teaching at Rice in 1963. (Courtesy of the Woodson Study Center at Rice University’s Fondren Library)
The paper’s abstract starts: “Why a Space Science Division at Rice? A 1-sentence answer: Mainly because President Kennedy came to Rice University to give a speech about the U.S. going to the moon, and Rice’s president decided that Rice should really show a response.”
Dessler described how Kenneth Pitzer, then president of Rice, hired him immediately with tiny fanfare and gave him cost-free rein to establish the division.
“By May possibly 1963 I was in Houston complete time, a 34-year-old complete professor with no academic encounter (except as a student), and chairman of a nonexistent Division of Space Science at Rice University,” Dessler wrote. “I don’t forget getting pleased, confident and eager. I do not recall any doubt or be concerned.”
To completely appreciate the challenge Dessler faced, Kean mentioned, “You have to sort of attempt to place oneself back exactly where Rice was in the early ’60s. It was substantially smaller sized. It was substantially much less sophisticated, substantially much less cosmopolitan.”
She mentioned Pitzer had the vision and fundraising expertise to elevate Rice to national prominence, but the path to that aim was uncharted.
“We’ve got all these ambitions,” Kean mentioned. “We’re going to get all this income. And then, we get NASA creating the Manned Space Center in Houston. It was, ‘Go. Go. Go.’ That is exactly where Dr. Dessler comes in. And with him come all these new faculty from California. They are not ‘Old Houston.’ They are young. They are energetic. They are vibrant. It hit this campus like a bombshell, and Dessler was the ringleader, the pied piper if you will. He was appropriate in the middle of it all.”
Hill mentioned the space science analysis system Dessler founded would go on to make some 250 Ph.D. scientists. Hill was 1, as had been Rice faculty members Patricia Reiff ’74 and Arthur Couple of ’69. The system also created national leaders, like David Cummings, the department’s initial Ph.D., who went on to serve as executive director of the Universities Space Study Association.
Alexander Dessler (left), founding chair of Rice University’s Space Science Division, with other former division chairs and members at a 2013 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the department’s founding. The Space Science Division was renamed in the 1970s and merged with a further division in the mid-2000s to kind today’s Division of Physics and Astronomy. From left: Dessler, Barry Dunning, Umbelina Cantu, Ronald Stebbings, Curtis Michel, Jon Weisheit and Patricia Reiff. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Lanie Anderson/HarmonEyes Photography)
Former students posted a steady stream of condolences and remembrances this week to the Rice Space Science alumni’s shared e-mail list.
“Alex Dessler was most likely the smartest man I ever met,” wrote Larry Kavanagh ’67. “The initial and most essential factor he taught me was that I was not right here to only discover about the magnetosphere, I was right here to discover how to assume. The second factor was that it was much more essential to visualize the physics than to visualize the equations. I believed his approaches had been unorthodox, but it was astounding how quickly he could resolve issues and how right he could be.”
Dessler would chair the Space Science division till 1969 and once again from 1979-1982 and 1987-1992. The division evolved and merged with the rest of the physical sciences on campus to kind the Division of Physics and Astronomy in the mid-2000s.
Aside from taking a leave of absence from 1982-1986 to serve as director of the Space Science Laboratory at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Dessler remained at Rice till his retirement in 1993. He would go on to serve as a analysis scientist at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory for 14 years ahead of joining Texas A&M University in 2007 as an adjunct professor in the Division of Atmospheric Science, exactly where his son, Andrew Dessler, is a professor.
Following his father’s death, Andrew Dessler posted a Twitter thread that involves many video clips from an oral history he produced with his father in the mid-2000s.